"I am quite sure and positive that we will match the 2010 Commonwealth Games tally."
It's that time of the year when the Indian table tennis fraternity breathes positivity. Having been there and done that, India's ace paddler Sharath Kamal is buzzing with confidence. In his fourth Games, he will lead a vibrant side with a good mix of youth and experience that is confident of matching the Delhi Games heroics going into the Commonwealth Games.
The 2010 Games at home produced India's best result as the hosts clinched five medals (one gold, one silver and three bronze), the two events in which they missed out were the Women's singles and Mixed doubles.
The Men's team winning bronze in Manchester 2002 was India's first table tennis medal at the Games and since then they have won a total of 12 medals in four editions.
This optimism emanates from the fact that over the years, Indian paddlers have had decent success at the Commonwealth Games. And more importantly, Indian table tennis has taken giant strides in the last couple of years. The men's team as ever looks formidable but this time around the women's team also looks strong. Both the men's and women's team are second seeded at the Games.
At Glasgow in 2014, India suffered a rare blip with just one medal, the Men's doubles silver. Lack of exposure and continuity in coaching were the biggest factors.
"More than what went wrong, a lot of things were not right. Things were not in the right process," Sharath told Firstpost.
"With 2010 Games being held in Delhi, we got a lot of funding and support from the government, we had a foreign coach. So we were in training camps for nearly three years and the coach had a long duration to work with the players. Then once the 2010 Games were over, there were a lot of scandals and scams because of which the money got locked. There was no funding happening because of which the exposure got less. We didn't have coaches working with the team to have a continuous process where what they had built up for the 2010 games was not continued into 2014. So we had a break of almost two years there. Then after that slowly by the time we started, getting in there, we faltered, we got only one silver medal," the veteran added.
However, things have changed. After the Rio Olympics disappointment where all four paddlers were knocked out in first round, the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) reappointed Italian Massimo Costantini as the head coach who was in charge during the Delhi Games and who according to Sharath "is quite lucky (for us), every time we had him, we've had good results."
Singapore has been the powerhouse of Commonwealth Table Tennis, having clinched a total of 44 medals in four editions but India's success has changed the perceptions in the world.
"We are having a different perception because the players are doing really well. So there is a perception that India is the team to beat," coach Constantini told Firstpost. "India is the favourite country in the Commonwealth Games, whereas in 2010 the team to beat was Singapore. Now the international perception is that "Oh my god, India is so good, they have six players in the top 100, so the perception from the other countries is the opposite. This is the big change. Singapore have changed their policy; before they used to take readymade players from China, now they have to build up their players from scratch. So things were completely different eight years back."
Yes, the confidence is high but with expectations comes pressure on the big stage and this is where Constantini's experience becomes crucial.
"The advantage is that after eight years, I have also learned a lot in my career. So I am bringing in new things, new ways to understand and new ways to communicate," Constantini explains. "I can bear the pressure and the players should not. I take the biggest burden on me and try to make the players comfortable to perform well."
The Indian paddlers will compete in seven categories: Men's team, Men's singles, Men's doubles, Women's team, Women's singles, Women's doubles and Mixed doubles.
At least one medal can be expected in each of the Men's team, Men's singles and Men's doubles, including a gold in the team event as the side looks pretty balanced. Their biggest competitors will be England (top seeds and world No 12), Nigeria (34), Singapore (21). England reached the semi-final of the recently concluded 2018 ITTF Team World Cup in February. India have never beaten the English at the CWG and they are looking to break the jinx this time around.
Sharath and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran are the medal prospects in singles. Sharath burst onto the Games' scene with golds in the Men's singles and Team in 2006. He clinched another gold in the 2010 Men's doubles teaming up with Subhajit Saha. He is a legend of six medals at the games, which include two bronze and a silver apart from three golds. At Glasgow, he missed out on another gold as he along with Anthony Amalraj lost to the Singaporean pair of Gao Ning-Li Hu in the Men's doubles final. 12 years after winning two golds on debut, the veteran is back again in the same country trying to bring back the gold in what probably could end up being his last Games. He is in good form of late, he will be the third-seeded in singles and is back into the top-50 in the world (48) and the win over World No 7 Koki Niwa of Japan in the Qatar Open Platinum Pro Tour in March earlier this year has been a catalyst for the confidence boost.
"I hope at the 2018 CWG, we first get back the gold medal because in 2006 and 2010 we got the gold medals. So I hope in 2018 also, we get a gold medal and probably I will finish on a high note," Sharath said.
Sathiyan has been riding massive crest in the last 15 months and will go into the Games as the highest ranked Indian at 46. He will also be second seeded in the singles at the Games. In a major turnaround last year, he jumped 76 places from 125 to 49 in eight months to become just the second Indian player to hit top-50 in the world after Sharath. In the process, he has also formed a formidable doubles pair with Sharath. They clinched bronzes at the Belgium and Swedish Opens respectively in November 2017.
However, it won't be easy this time around as the competition has increased.
"There are more players at the same level. Last time, Singapore was way ahead of the rest of the contingent so we could not catch up with them but now I think England, Nigeria, Singapore and us, we have all more or less the same level players," Sharath explained. "Also in the singles, we have 12-13 players of the same level. That is going to make it more difficult, every match is going to be extra competitive and everybody is going to fight for their own share of the pie."
While the overall competition has increased, India's Men's singles will face a formidable challenge in Nigeria's Aruna Quadri (world No 26), England's Liam Pitchford (world No 65), Sam Walker and Paul Drinkhall (World No 52) and Singapore's Gao Ning (47). Having played against these players in the Pro Tours and the Ultimate Table Tennis, information sharing becomes crucial.
"We have been doing a lot of video analysis. And watching what they have been doing and what changes they have brought about in recent times," Sharath explains.
"(Information sharing) has to be complete. Within the team members, it has to be very complete: This is how I beat the other player or this is what I feel is difficult against the other player. So they tell me the strong points and the weaknesses and then you make a strategy according to your game. Probably Sathiyan would have played him in one different way, that might not be my way. But I will hold on to something which he has said and will try to get the opponent in that manner. So you have to come up with strategies."
The strategies (who will play in which singles, doubles and mixed doubles pairings) will depend on the opponents. India lost a valuable asset in Soumyajit Ghosh who is provisionally suspended by the TTFI following rape charges against him. However, the strong bench consisting of Harmeet Desai (third-highest ranked Indian in the world at 74), Anthony Amalraj (World No 83) and Sanil Shetty (World No 84) are more than capable of making up for his absence.
The women's team will face stiff competition from the Singapore girls who will be top seeded. Manika Batra, the highest ranked Indian Women's player in the world at 58 is a medal prospect in Women's singles. India haven't opened their medals account in the Women's singles at the CWG and Manika would be desperately looking to break that duck. World No 4 Singaporean Fang Tianwei starts off as favourite for gold. The pair of Manika-Mouma Das is a strong contender for a doubles medal, maybe even a gold. Last year they became the first Indian pair to reach the quarter-finals of the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships in Dusseldorf.
Mixed doubles is one of only two events where India haven't won a medal. If Sharath-Manika pair up, they will have the chance to open the account. The balance in both the men's and women's team provides India with a good opportunity in mixed doubles but not before a stiff challenge against Singapore.
Team bonding was one of the major reasons for India's success at the Delhi Games. It somewhat went missing in 2014 but it is back again within it Sharath is the big brother.
"We've played for three-four years together. Now I know them personally, back then (in 2014), they thought of me as a senior so it's was really difficult for them to connect with me. But now it's changed, now it's more like I am their big brother and connect with them easily," Sharath explains.
A 16-day CWG preparatory camp in Portugal punctuated the Pro Tours and the Nationals. One of the major aspects of the camp was team bonding and formation of new combinations for doubles and mixed doubles in order to make sure there is enough back-up in case of changes of plan.
"We had the chance to prepare different combinations of doubles and mixed doubles because the playing system for the CWG is the Olympic system. Two singles, one doubles and two singles. But every player can play a maximum of two matches. So if I have a player selected for two matches then he cannot play the doubles," Constantini explains.
"Everyday we played six hours, so six hours for 16 days is almost 100 hours. I balanced the time for each category. The camp was important to team spirit, bonding, better understanding and communication."
Having played in the country earlier in the Australian Open will also help. "We went to Australian Open to get the feel of conditions and playing well in Australia it makes me feel even better because we are going to a place where we have already played better. That is a very positive sign," Sathiyan explains
Riding high on confidence, the Indian paddlers would be looking to exorcise the ghosts of Glasgow and Rio and match or even better 2010 Delhi tally. The Games is where dreams take flight and very few things can match the feeling of standing on the podium.
"I want to see the tricolour flying once at least and the national anthem being played. That's the moment we feel, okay we have done our country proud," an emotional Sharath signs off.
Men: Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Anthony Amalraj, Harmeet Desai, Sanil Shetty
Women: Manika Batra, Mouma Das, Madhurika Patkar, Pooja Sahasrabuddhe, Suthirta Mukherjee
Coaches: Massimo Costantini and Soumyadeep Roy
Support staff: Amarjit Singh (masseur) and Kishore Dey (physio)
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Updated Date: Apr 08, 2018 12:38:19 IST